Exciting opportunities exist to secure just and durable Treaty settlements across the Auckland region, says Chris Finlayson.

An important election commitment made by the National Party in 2008 was to set a goal of concluding just and durable Treaty settlements by 2014.

The reasons were simple - by healing the grievances of the past, all New Zealanders could move forward.

It was not an option to forget the past and the legitimate claims of iwi, but nor did we want to be stuck there. Settlements ultimately benefit everyone.

Shortly after I became minister, I had an extensive tour throughout New Zealand to talk to iwi. I found that iwi, too, are very keen to conclude settlements with the Crown.

They see the experience of others who settled in the late 1990s and how much they have achieved in the intervening period. They do not want to spend time and money on litigation and negotiation. They all want to cut to the chase, achieve good settlements and move on.

It should be borne in mind when National became the Government in 2008, there were about 60 settlements outstanding. Fully 20 per cent of these are claims in the Auckland region.

Just before the year ended, the Crown concluded two agreements in principle with iwi in Auckland, with Ngati Manuhiri and Ngati Whatua o Kaipara. The New Year started with a landmark agreement in principle with the five iwi who come from the very top of the North Island. Those iwi commenced a claim in the Waitangi Tribunal as far back as 1986.

A huge amount of effort on both sides has gone into reaching this settlement and the iwi negotiators deserve to be congratulated for their hard work and professionalism.

(An agreement in principle sets out the bare bones of a proposed settlement. When the detail has been worked out, binding deeds of settlement are signed and these are given effect by legislation. An important part of a bill passed by Parliament is to ensure any settlement is full and final.)

So the last 12 months have seen great momentum. I am very hopeful that 2010 is going to see a similar level of activity, especially in the Auckland region.

Several aspects of Treaty settlements are worthy of mention.

The first is that sometimes iwi ask for restoration of ancient names. For centuries, what we know as Ninety Mile Beach was known throughout Maoridom as Te Oneroa a Tohe. The beach is especially important to Maori because of its history as a resource for food, transport, cultural and spiritual sustenance.

In these circumstances, the Crown agreed that it was appropriate to recognise the interests of not just the iwi of the north but all Maori and restore the ancient name.

In much the same way, many years ago, Mt Egmont was renamed Egmont/Taranaki. Over time everyone has become more comfortable with the change, to the point where Taranaki is the more common name nowadays. There are several other settlements where name changes have taken place.

Sometimes iwi ask for a say in how a natural resource can be looked after. Again, Ninety Mile Beach - Te Oneroa a Tohe - provides an example.

Not only is it of spiritual significance to Maori but it also was an ancient food-gathering area, for the famed toheroa and for mullet.

Those food stocks have deteriorated over the years and the iwi wants some say on how the beach can be restored. This seems reasonable given the historical connection they have with the beach and so the Government is prepared to involve those iwi in looking at ways in which environmental damage can be repaired for the good of all beach-goers.

In Auckland, there has been some discussion over the volcanic cones or maunga. The previous Government offered Ngati Whatua o Orakei the transfer of title in some of the maunga and some say in their management.

The trouble with that approach is that many of the claims in Auckland were overlapping and the previous Government's actions resulted in claims to the Waitangi Tribunal. So nothing happened in the Auckland region for three years.

Meanwhile, that lack of progress has hamstrung the Auckland City Council, which said that no new tree could be planted on One Tree Hill until the ownership issue was resolved.

Iwi and the Crown have been talking through the various issues in the last 12 months and the opportunity is now presenting itself for settlement of all claims in the Auckland region.

This would involve transferring the title of the volcanic cones in a way that takes account of all the iwi with legitimate interests in the cones, and with iwi having an involvement alongside the council in the management of those cones.

In fact, it is the same co-management model that has worked without a hitch at Orakei Basin - including the reserve and Bastion Pt - since 1990 when that land was vested in local iwi.

What effect would this change have on the public? None. Public access remains the same. Public access to natural resources is, and always will be, a bottom line for this Government.

These are exciting times. The opportunity exists for concluding just and durable settlements throughout the Auckland region, something that a few years ago would have been regarded as a pipe dream.

Iwi are keen to get on with the business, the Crown is keen, and everyone agrees that public access can never be compromised.

That is why this Government is moving with such determination to resolve historical Treaty issues. Settling historical Treaty claims by 2014 means just that - settlements have to take place.

Governments cannot just talk about settling - they actually have to do the deals. The Crown and Maori are determined to work together to undo the heavy burdens of the past and move on. It is a time for optimism and positive thinking.

* Chris Finlayson is Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations.